The 2014 Grant letter: another epistolary triumph

And the wait was finally over

The Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills has written to HEFCE with the Department’s annual message on funding and helpful bag of instructions. As excitement in the sector reached near fever pitch, the contents were being live-tweeted by @TimesHigherEd while everyone else waited to get hold of a copy.

The much-delayed letter does not contain much of what you might describe as good news although there is some modest improvement on the capital front. Additional student places and the removal of student number controls altogether from 2015-16 are confirmed:

The settlement will mean reductions in funding for higher education institutions in 2014-15 and again in 2015-16 beyond those accounted for by the switch to publicly funded tuition fees. The Government has asked HEFCE to deliver the reductions in ways which protect as far as possible high-cost subjects (including STEM), widening participation (which is funded via the HEFCE Student Opportunity allocation), and small and specialist institutions.

HEFCE is asked to continue its work with the Research Councils and others to support internationally excellent research and the delivery of the impact agenda through the dual-support framework. The ring-fenced settlement for science and research means that recurrent funding is maintained at £1,573 million, the same cash levels as 2013-14.

Overall, the amount of capital funding for teaching and research will increase in 2014-15 to £440 million.

The grant letter confirms the Government’s provision of a maximum of 30,000 additional student places in academic year 2014-15 for HEFCE-funded institutions. The student number control will be removed entirely from 2015-16, and the Government has asked HEFCE to ensure that higher education institutions maintain the quality of the student experience in these circumstances.

Bur enough of the content, what about the important stuff like length? At 22 paragraphs, excluding the covering letter, or 26 if you include the substantive comments in the letter, it is shorter than any of its three predecessors from the BIS duo which have come in at 36, 35 and 28 paragraphs long. It is pleasing though that the Secretary of State’s signature remains as cheerful as ever (see below).

It is far from the shortest on record though which is the initial 10 paragraph punt from back at the start of the Coalition journey. As this utterly pointless graph (now in need of an update) shows, the long term trend is reduced grant letter length.

The length of Grant Letters to HEFCE down the years

The length of Grant Letters to HEFCE down the years

So much for this year then, what of the past?

The earlier post on this topic back in August 2010 noted:

The most recent funding letter of June 24 2010 from Vince Cable and David Willetts to the Chairman of HEFCE is distinctive for three main reasons. First, and unsurprisingly if dispiritingly, it outlines the first major tranche of savings to be made in the 2010-11 financial year. Secondly, it is extremely short – indeed at 10 paragraphs and just over two pages it is the shortest funding letter to the Council in at least 14 years and undercuts all letters under the previous government by some way. Thirdly, it is the first such letter to be signed by both the Secretary of State and the relevant Minister. And thank goodness too or some of us might never have seen this fascinating signature:

Of course those with longer memories will have fond recollections of the briefest of grant letters from the University Grants Committee (UGC) which simply set out the amount of money available for disbursement. Many will long for the golden age of five year funding settlements under the UGC. Whilst it could reasonably be argued that the UGC served as an effective buffer between the state and the universities, the options for the Higher Education Funding Councils, and in particular HEFCE, are much more limited as the directives from government on spending have become ever more detailed and prescriptive. Fortunately though we are able to examine all of the details of these as HEFCE has a nice collection of funding letters going back to 1996.

This decidedly dubious summary of these letters draws on this collection but refers only to English funding allocations. I’m sure the other funding councils receive similar missives from their respective governments but it is beyond my capacity to deal with them I’m afraid.

The length of funding letters has seen two peaks in the last 14 years: January 2003’s letter was 73 paragraphs long and the December 1998 note ran to 66 paragraphs. The November 1999, November 2000 and December 2001 letters ranged from 40 to 46 paragraphs but the January 2004 letter and subsequent missives tend towards the more traditional brevity of only 15-25 paragraphs of instruction to HEFCE.

Just for completeness then here are some of the details about English Higher Education’s most exciting epistles:

  1. The first letter in this series is the last prepared under the previous Conservative government, way back in November 1996. This 41 paragraph note (signed by a Civil Servant) covers: linking funding to assessment of teaching quality, expanding part-time provision, the importance of closer links with employers, not wanting to see longer courses, a planned reduction in student numbers by 2,000 for the following year and keeping the participation rate at around 30%. Some interesting parallels here with the most recent letter from the current government perhaps?
  2. The December 1998 letter is the first New Labour funding letter. At 66 paragraphs it is one of the longest in recent times and the last one to carry the name of a senior Civil Servant rather than the Secretary of State. Topics covered include sector spending, lifelong learning, increasing participation, maintaining quality and standards (a recurring theme down the years), widening access, promoting employability, research investment, capital spend, tuition fee arrangements and Year 2000 issues (we were all worried then).
  3. The November 1999 letter, 43 paragraphs long, provides David Blunkett with the opportunity to wax lyrical on the importance of maintaining quality and standards, increasing participation and employability, widening access, equal opportunities for HE staff, dealing with student complaints, new capital funding, pfi/ppp opportunities, research funding and HE pay.
  4. David Blunkett, in his November 2000 letter, which runs to a sprightly 46 paragraphs, makes some big points on widening participation as a key priority, business links and the e-university.
  5. In November 2001 Estelle Morris provides a neat 40 paragraph letter which gives lots of direction on widening participation, maintaining quality and standards, strengthening research, the importance of links with industry and communities, as well as something on the value of the e-Universities project (remember that?) and, last but not least, social inclusion.
  6. January 2003 represents the high water mark of recent funding letters: in 73 action packed paragraphs Charles Clarke, in his first outing as Secretary of State, is clearly keen to lead the way. The letter covers, among other things, improvement in research, expanded student numbers, foundation degrees, widening participation, improving teaching and learning and increased knowledge transfer. As if that were not enough we also have the establishment of the AHRC, the introduction of a new quality assurance regime but with reduced burdens for institutions (yeah, right), credit systems, FE partnerships, expanded student numbers and new investments in HE workforce development. A real blockbuster of a letter.
  7. The January 2004 message from Charles Clarke comes in at 20 paragraphs in just over 4 pages with reducing bureaucracy, building research and quality and standards and the establishment of Aimhigher as its central features.
  8. December 2004 brings a Christmas treat from everyone’s favourite Santa, Charles Clarke. With just 16 paragraphs and 4 pages of direction Clarke stresses the importance of maintaining the unit of funding for teaching, controlling student numbers and making efficiency gains.
  9. The January 2006 letter, a first and last offering from Ruth Kelly, comes in at a modest 15 paragraphs and 4 pages. No huge surprises in the text with employer-led provision, more widening participation, additional research and capital funding and a strong steer on reducing bureaucracy being the primary features. Additional points to note include equal opportunities for HE staff, efficiency gains, the new conditions which accompany the new tuition fees regime and reference to access agreements. What’s not to like here?
  10. January 2007’s is a punchy 19 paragraphs and merely five pages from Alan Johnson (his one and only letter). Despite the wordiness there isn’t a huge amount in here beyond employer engagement, growing foundation degrees and a lot on widening participation.
  11. January 2008: as with its successor letter this one is 24 paragraphs and 7 pages long (and note the online version on the HEFCE website is erroneously dated 18 Jan 2009). In this funding letter Denham indicates that his priorities are increasing student numbers, developing employer part-funded provision, and widening participation. The letter also refers to encouraging HE to develop stronger links with schools and colleges, greater investment in research, the importance of STEM, a green development fund, closer measuring of performance, and the establishment of the fund-raising match-funding scheme.
  12. January 2009’s letter is 7 pages and 24 paragraphs long and in it John Denham seeks to encourage HE to support the economy through recession, wider engagement with business, promote employer-led provision, innovative ways to support business, promotion of STEM subjects and widening participation and extending fair access. Additionally, there is the confirmation of the ‘university challenge’ with 20 new HE centres to be established, emphasis on the maintenance of quality and standards, plans for continuing to reduce regulation, commitment to dual support as well as the development of REF, steps to tackle climate change and bearing down on over-recruitment by institutions.
  13. The December 2009 letter from Lord Mandelson comes in at 15 paragraphs. This short note follows up on Higher Ambitions (which, in case you had forgotten, “sets out a course for how universities can remain world class, providing the nation with the high level skills needed to remain competitive, while continuing to attract the brightest students and researchers”) and also covers the Economic Challenge Investment Fund, wider and fairer access to HE, increasing the variety of undergraduate provision, new funding incentives to deliver higher level skills, developing REF, new developments in quality assurance including the publication of a standard set of information for students, engaging with communities and penalizing institutions which over-recruit students.
  14. June 2010 sees the first funding letter from the new coalition government: Cable and Willetts give us 10 brief paragraphs covering initial savings, efficiencies and cuts but also 10,000 extra places (but with strings).

So, that’s your lot folks. All you never wanted to know about 15 years of funding letters.

Developing higher education in Kurdistan

Vital developments in an emerging nation.

Back in 2009 one of the University of Nottingham’s senior academics took on an unusual new role. Professor Dlawer Ala’Aldeen was appointed as Higher Education Minister and began to draw up plans to improve the quality of and to internationalise higher education in Kurdistan.

The post-Saddam university system he was taking on was described by Professor Ala’Aldeen as “grossly outdated” and designed for a closed, centralised country.

The BBC News report on his reforms tells how he had tomatoes, stones and apples thrown at him in response to his attempts at changing Kurdistan’s universities. However, he did make progress:

Within a week of being appointed, Prof Ala’Aldeen had written up a radical vision document and it was quickly endorsed by the cabinet.

Higher education in Kurdistan was suffering a major crisis of quality, capacity and infrastructure.

There was a consensus in support of reform and it helped that Prof Ala’Aldeen had been very critical of the government in the past.

Flag-map of Iraqi Kurdistan

The reforms, which planned to improve the quality and accreditation of university teachers, brought considerable opposition from student and teacher organisations as well as businesses linked with the burgeoning market in private universities.

Several new private universities were threatened with closure, much to the anger of their staff and prospective students who had paid fees for their courses.

“Many teachers had been licensed prematurely. There were 11 private universities when I started with 18 more waiting to be opened. These mushrooming private colleges were relying on the same pool of resources as the public universities which lacked staff and facilities,” Prof Ala’Aldeen says.

The problem of staffing was particularly acute in medicine, pharmacy and dentistry and in postgraduate studies.

But Prof Ala’Aldeen faced protests and opposition.

He was accused of trying to transplant the UK system onto Kurdistan, something he vehemently denies since he was educated and worked in his home region, before coming to study in the UK.

There was opposition but he did make some major changes to higher education in Kurdistan. It really is a great story.

Save universities from more misguided regulation

Well-meaning but fundamentally wrong proposals for yet more regulation

hecommission-regulationreportcoversmaller

Just when you thought things couldn’t get much worse in terms of higher education regulation, another group comes along and proposes a whole load more. Brilliant. (I’ve posted before here on this issue.)

I’ve not seen the report yet (it is due to be published today) but the Guardian has and has commented at some length on its contents under the title “What universities need: regulation, regulation, regulation” which gives us a bit of a steer on the conclusions. It is suggested that there is massive risk here which only what looks like a shed load (technical term for a unit of unnecessary bureaucracy) of additional regulation can mitigate:

They warn that without proper regulation, there is little to protect students from disreputable or fly-by-night institutions. “We are concerned that there is a growing unregulated sector of higher education that may be offering insufficient provision to students,” the report states. “This has the potential to damage England’s reputation as a leading provider of higher education.” It also threatens students’ confidence that the thousands of pounds they pay in fees will secure them a top-quality education, at an institution that will not go bust.Paper_tape_table_dispenser-01

The authors argue that there is also a commercial case for better regulation: it encourages businesses to invest in the sector and banks to lend institutions money. “We believe that the current regulatory environment in higher education, and the changes that are in-train, are insufficient to achieve this,” the report says.

It is far from clear what this “unregulated sector” is. Is it the alternative private providers which have been ushered into higher education by this government? Perhaps, but whilst they are arguably under-regulated they are not exactly “fly-by-night” outfits. So where are these shady backstreet higher education providers which are necessitating all this extra red tape? Perhaps they are listed in the report but it is far from clear from this who we are talking about.

Until now, regulation of higher education institutions has been piecemeal, dictated partly by rules, such as health and safety, that govern any large organisation, partly by institutional committees responsible for setting and monitoring standards on research and course programmes, and partly by academic senates, boards of governors and sector-owned bodies, such as the Higher Education Statistics Agency, supporting effective management. Hefce and the Office for Fair Access also act as independent external regulators, monitoring respectively institutions’ financial health and efforts to be socially inclusive, while Hefce contracts the Quality Assurance Agency to monitor teaching quality.

In his review, published in 2010, which recommended lifting the cap on tuition fees, Lord Browne suggested merging all the regulatory bodies into a single, independent Higher Education Council. Earlier this year, the Institute for Public Policy Research came up with a similar proposal. The government has never acted on the idea.

Now, the commission recommends a “lead” regulator, the Council for Higher Education, incorporating Offa, the Office for Student Loans (formerly the Student Loans Company) and a new, lightly staffed Office for Competition and Institutional Diversity, each retaining individual structures and purposes. Other regulatory bodies, including QAA and Office for the Independent Adjudicator, would be linked but independent.

Whilst it is right to identify that there is a messy patchwork of legislation and regulation affecting higher education, the ideas which have been floated to tidy this up seem to have been motivated by views of a need for tidiness and convenience for those involved in regulating than what is actually in the interest of students, universities, the sector or the country/countries concerned. The government has not acted on these ideas for the very good reason that they don’t make sense. Moreover, it looks from this piece as if the report is seeking to combine UK-wide and English agencies without regard to the positions of the devolved nations.

One final point caught my eye here:

The report also proposes an insurance scheme, paid into by every institution, to safeguard students should an institution or course fail, and based on a scheme run by the Civil Aviation Authority. This may be controversial, with traditional institutions reluctant to pay into a scheme designed to bail out new, riskier operations that fail.

“May be controversial”? What delightfully amusing understatement.

To summarise. We need less regulation, not more. Higher education is already over-regulated and this impacts negatively on institutions’ ability to deliver their missions. This kind of report I fear offers only a recipe for further bureaucracy and waste in higher education and will not benefit students or the sector. So, thanks but no thanks.

Higher Ed data – way too much information

Tackling the surfeit of data

I’ve written before here about Higher Education regulation (see for example this general commentary and this post on information provision) and the excess of information provision available to prospective students.

It’s pleasing therefore to see that HEFCE is undertaking a review of providing information about higher education. The aims of the review are set out as follows:

The review will aim to ensure that:

  • wherever possible, the different elements of the provision of information fall within a coherent framework, across UK institutions
  • we gather sound evidence to help us form the future information
  • the outcomes of different mechanisms suit the issues they are designed to address
  • information is usable and accessible, and that we are able to make the best use of technology to facilitate this in the future.

The review will reflect on how much this area of our work costs the public purse. It will also consider the role of a range of organisations in providing independent, contextualised, robust, comparable and usable information.

unistats latin

There’s plenty more where this came from

The review will look at the purpose and use of NSS results, at the Unistats site and the Key Information Set data as well as the Destination of Leavers from Higher Education (Delhe) survey. It is also going to examine how this data is used by prospective students. If all goes well this should be an extremely valuable piece of work and will, it is to be hoped, result in a significant reduction in the quantity of data collected and published (and the bureaucratic burden on universities) in favour of an improvement in the quality of information available to applicants.

A long way to go but let’s hope that the group overseeing the work, the Higher Education Public Information Steering Group (HEPISG, from which acronym I’m afraid I still derive puerile amusement) will do its job well and we will see some real change in this area.

Launch of the nice university league table

New league table: nearly there.

A previous post noted the imminent arrival of the all new European non-ranking ranking. Well now it seems to be nearly complete with only a year to wait until the first ranking is produced. The public launch of the ‘multi-dimensional’ ranking, which is intended to cover a wider range of indicators than the existing main league tables. Whilst research is one of the factors, the ranking will also cover quality of teaching and learning, international orientation, success in knowledge transfer and contribution to regional growth. The core proposition it seems is that this table will somehow not be a ranking and will therefore be nicer than all those other nasty league tables which put institutions in order.

 

 

The press release from the launch noted:

Speaking ahead of the launch, Androulla Vassiliou, European Commissioner for Education, Culture, Multilingualism and Youth said: “Universities are one of Europe’s most successful inventions, but we cannot rest on our laurels. We need to think and act more strategically to realise the full potential of our universities. To do that, we need better information about what they offer and how well they perform. Existing rankings tend to highlight research achievements above all, but U-Multirank will give students and institutions a clear picture of their performance across a range of important areas. This knowledge will help students to choose the university or college that is best for them. It will also contribute to the modernisation and quality of higher education by enabling universities to identify their strengths or weaknesses and learn from each other’s experience; finally, it will give policy makers a more complete view of their higher education systems so that they can strengthen their country’s performance as a whole.”

A lot of work has gone into the new ranking:
multi

An independent consortium will compile the ranking, led by the Centre for Higher Education (CHE) in Germany and the Center for Higher Education Policy Studies (CHEPS) in the Netherlands. Partners include the Centre for Science and Technology Studies at Leiden University (CWTS), information professionals Elsevier, the Bertelsmann Foundation and software firm Folge 3. The consortium will also work with national ranking partners and stakeholder organisations representing students, universities and business to ensure completeness and accuracy.

The ambition is there and the EU investment backs this up. Will it take off? Will the leading universities, who do so well in the current world rankings, want to join in? Will anyone really think it’s a nicer ranking? Time will tell.

Higher education funding letters: another bundle of joy

On government HE funding letters

The Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills has written to HEFCE with the Department’s annual message on funding and helpful bag of instructions.

The letter

sets out Government funding and priorities for HEFCE and for higher education for the second year of the new financial arrangements for higher education in England. The Government’s vision for higher education, outlined in the higher education white paper ‘Students at the heart of the system’, remains, and HEFCE is asked to continue to support learning and teaching activity, quality assurance, widening participation and an enhanced student experience. HEFCE will also continue our support for postgraduate provision.

Super. More instructions.

Not only does it offer even more directions to HEFCE, at 36 paragraphs and eight pages it is the second longest of the four to date issued by the Secretary of State and the Minister and confirms a return to the sterling epistolary efforts made by the previous government.

Last January’s effort really set the standard though – although it contained 35 paragraphs was in fact nine pages long. The December 2010 was somewhat shorter at only 28 paragraphs and can be seen as the BIS duo just getting into their stride.

The earlier post on this topic back in August 2010 noted:

The most recent funding letter of June 24 2010 from Vince Cable and David Willetts to the Chairman of HEFCE is distinctive for three main reasons. First, and unsurprisingly if dispiritingly, it outlines the first major tranche of savings to be made in the 2010-11 financial year. Secondly, it is extremely short – indeed at 10 paragraphs and just over two pages it is the shortest funding letter to the Council in at least 14 years and undercuts all letters under the previous government by some way. Thirdly, it is the first such letter to be signed by both the Secretary of State and the relevant Minister. And thank goodness too or some of us might never have seen this fascinating signature:

Of course those with longer memories will have fond recollections of the briefest of grant letters from the University Grants Committee (UGC) which simply set out the amount of money available for disbursement. Many will long for the golden age of five year funding settlements under the UGC. Whilst it could reasonably be argued that the UGC served as an effective buffer between the state and the universities, the options for the Higher Education Funding Councils, and in particular HEFCE, are much more limited as the directives from government on spending have become ever more detailed and prescriptive. Fortunately though we are able to examine all of the details of these as HEFCE has a nice collection of funding letters going back to 1996.

This decidedly dubious summary of these letters draws on this collection but refers only to English funding allocations. I’m sure the other funding councils receive similar missives from their respective governments but it is beyond my capacity to deal with them I’m afraid.

The length of funding letters has seen two peaks in the last 14 years: January 2003’s letter was 73 paragraphs long and the December 1998 note ran to 66 paragraphs. The November 1999, November 2000 and December 2001 letters ranged from 40 to 46 paragraphs but the January 2004 letter and subsequent missives tend towards the more traditional brevity of only 15-25 paragraphs of instruction to HEFCE.

Just for completeness then here are some of the details about English Higher Education’s most exciting epistles:

  1. The first letter in this series is the last prepared under the previous Conservative government, way back in November 1996. This 41 paragraph note (signed by a Civil Servant) covers: linking funding to assessment of teaching quality, expanding part-time provision, the importance of closer links with employers, not wanting to see longer courses, a planned reduction in student numbers by 2,000 for the following year and keeping the participation rate at around 30%. Some interesting parallels here with the most recent letter from the current government perhaps?
  2. The December 1998 letter is the first New Labour funding letter. At 66 paragraphs it is one of the longest in recent times and the last one to carry the name of a senior Civil Servant rather than the Secretary of State. Topics covered include sector spending, lifelong learning, increasing participation, maintaining quality and standards (a recurring theme down the years), widening access, promoting employability, research investment, capital spend, tuition fee arrangements and Year 2000 issues (we were all worried then).
  3. The November 1999 letter, 43 paragraphs long, provides David Blunkett with the opportunity to wax lyrical on the importance of maintaining quality and standards, increasing participation and employability, widening access, equal opportunities for HE staff, dealing with student complaints, new capital funding, pfi/ppp opportunities, research funding and HE pay.
  4. David Blunkett, in his November 2000 letter, which runs to a sprightly 46 paragraphs, makes some big points on widening participation as a key priority, business links and the e-university.
  5. In November 2001 Estelle Morris provides a neat 40 paragraph letter which gives lots of direction on widening participation, maintaining quality and standards, strengthening research, the importance of links with industry and communities, as well as something on the value of the e-Universities project (remember that?) and, last but not least, social inclusion.
  6. January 2003 represents the high water mark of recent funding letters: in 73 action packed paragraphs Charles Clarke, in his first outing as Secretary of State, is clearly keen to lead the way. The letter covers, among other things, improvement in research, expanded student numbers, foundation degrees, widening participation, improving teaching and learning and increased knowledge transfer. As if that were not enough we also have the establishment of the AHRC, the introduction of a new quality assurance regime but with reduced burdens for institutions (yeah, right), credit systems, FE partnerships, expanded student numbers and new investments in HE workforce development. A real blockbuster of a letter.
  7. The January 2004 message from Charles Clarke comes in at 20 paragraphs in just over 4 pages with reducing bureaucracy, building research and quality and standards and the establishment of Aimhigher as its central features.
  8. December 2004 brings a Christmas treat from everyone’s favourite Santa, Charles Clarke. With just 16 paragraphs and 4 pages of direction Clarke stresses the importance of maintaining the unit of funding for teaching, controlling student numbers and making efficiency gains.
  9. The January 2006 letter, a first and last offering from Ruth Kelly, comes in at a modest 15 paragraphs and 4 pages. No huge surprises in the text with employer-led provision, more widening participation, additional research and capital funding and a strong steer on reducing bureaucracy being the primary features. Additional points to note include equal opportunities for HE staff, efficiency gains, the new conditions which accompany the new tuition fees regime and reference to access agreements. What’s not to like here?
  10. January 2007’s is a punchy 19 paragraphs and merely five pages from Alan Johnson (his one and only letter). Despite the wordiness there isn’t a huge amount in here beyond employer engagement, growing foundation degrees and a lot on widening participation.
  11. January 2008: as with its successor letter this one is 24 paragraphs and 7 pages long (and note the online version on the HEFCE website is erroneously dated 18 Jan 2009). In this funding letter Denham indicates that his priorities are increasing student numbers, developing employer part-funded provision, and widening participation. The letter also refers to encouraging HE to develop stronger links with schools and colleges, greater investment in research, the importance of STEM, a green development fund, closer measuring of performance, and the establishment of the fund-raising match-funding scheme.
  12. January 2009’s letter is 7 pages and 24 paragraphs long and in it John Denham seeks to encourage HE to support the economy through recession, wider engagement with business, promote employer-led provision, innovative ways to support business, promotion of STEM subjects and widening participation and extending fair access. Additionally, there is the confirmation of the ‘university challenge’ with 20 new HE centres to be established, emphasis on the maintenance of quality and standards, plans for continuing to reduce regulation, commitment to dual support as well as the development of REF, steps to tackle climate change and bearing down on over-recruitment by institutions.
  13. The December 2009 letter from Lord Mandelson comes in at 15 paragraphs. This short note follows up on Higher Ambitions (which, in case you had forgotten, “sets out a course for how universities can remain world class, providing the nation with the high level skills needed to remain competitive, while continuing to attract the brightest students and researchers”) and also covers the Economic Challenge Investment Fund, wider and fairer access to HE, increasing the variety of undergraduate provision, new funding incentives to deliver higher level skills, developing REF, new developments in quality assurance including the publication of a standard set of information for students, engaging with communities and penalizing institutions which over-recruit students.
  14. June 2010 sees the first funding letter from the new coalition government: Cable and Willetts give us 10 brief paragraphs covering initial savings, efficiencies and cuts but also 10,000 extra places (but with strings).

So, that’s your lot folks. All you never wanted to know about 14 years of funding letters.

University Education – Free for Everyone?

Will everyone have free HE in 10 years’ time? Or is this just more MOOC hype?

An interesting piece in Time on “Why College May Be Totally Free Within 10 Years”. It’s a report of an interesting (but perhaps rather sinister sounding) TedEx style think tank event called the Nantucket Project.

 

The report commented on presentations by Peter Thiel and Vivek Wadhwa:

Thiel has gotten a lot of attention for his view that higher education is broken, and that many kids would be better off saving their money and going straight from high school into a trade or developing a business. His “20 under 20” fellowship grants high school graduates with a sound business idea $100,000 if they agree to skip college and go right to work on their idea.

Wadhwa’s views are less well known, even though he served as a counter-point interview last May on a 60 Minutes segment featuring Thiel. Wadhwa has unwavering faith in the power of technology to fix much of what is wrong with the world, and he believes that online courses will revolutionize higher education and cut the cost to near zero for most students over the next decade.

It’s probably not quite what they are campaigning for

Both interesting but really at the hyperbole-driven end of the debate. Then we have the voice of reason from Larry Summers:

Summers, a former president of Harvard, agrees that higher education is in transition. But he thinks Thiel is “badly wrong” about his bubble theory and that Wadhwa is severely underestimating the value of the total university experience. The gap between what college graduates and high school graduates earn is only widening, which speaks to the continuing value of a college degree—no matter what it costs. And, says Summers, “If you think higher education is expensive, try ignorance.”

There is a reason that people pay a lot of money to go to an event like the Super Bowl when it is free on TV, Summers offers. They get more out of it by being present. Something similar is true of an on-campus education, where you may attend extra-curricular events and engage more fully with faculty and other students.

For his part, Wadhwa allows that there will always be students able and willing to pay for a traditional college experience and for them it will be a worthwhile investment. But for the vast majority, from a financial standpoint that kind of education makes no sense and is fast becoming unnecessary. He believes the higher education revolution is coming soon and will happen fast—perhaps fast enough to keep the next generation from finishing school with debts they may never be able to pay.

It’s all breathlessly exciting of course but Summers is right to stress the value of the university experience. As has been noted in previous pieces here on MOOCS – on why they aren’t perhaps as revolutionary as some suggest and some reasons for universities not to panic about them – there is a long way to go before any universities are obliterated by the online wave. And there is a lot more to higher education than content delivery. It’s yet more hype and we’d better get used to it.

MOOCS: 12 Reasons for universities not to panic

Don’t believe the hype?

There has been an extraordinary level of hype in higher education (and beyond) about Massive Open Online Courses or MOOCs. Vice-Chancellors and their senior management teams up and down the country have been fretting about the developments and whether they need to get on board with one of the big players to avoid missing out. Two UK universities have recently announced their membership of a MOOC consortium with both Edinburgh University and the University of London signing up with Coursera. Meanwhile in the US the governance chaos at the University of Virginia where the President was forced to resign by governors and then reinstated two weeks later was prompted, at least in part, by differences of opinion on institutional strategy in relation to MOOCs.

At least not yet

As noted in an earlier post, MOOCs are big and new and challenging for universities but in many ways they are a contemporary echo of aspirations for wider access to higher level study from an earlier age. So, if your university is asking whether it’s going to miss out by not joining one of the MOOC consortia or if your senior management team is in a spin about missing the MOOC bandwagon or even struggling to understand what the heck this is all about, here are a dozen good reasons not to panic.

  1. There isn’t a business model for MOOCs that stacks up. OK, there are hundreds of thousands of students enrolled but they aren’t paying a penny for the privilege. And it really isn’t free to design, develop and deliver online provision. The unit cost per student may be negligible but the real up front costs and maintenance are non trivial investments as noted in this earlier blog.
  2. Badges. Universities deliver higher education. We award degrees. MOOCs however adopt the cub scout approach to knowledge acquisition by giving you a badge or a nice attendance certificate if you make it to the end. Accreditation matters. Academic credentials have meaning and currency because of how they are attained and the means by which academic standards and quality are assured. Badges don’t offer this. They are just, well, badges.
  3. While we’re on the subject: Quality assurance – there really isn’t any to write home about. This is not to say that any old garbage will be delivered by anyone with a camera, a cool shirt and a wifi connection but rather that the quality assurance frameworks which govern MOOCs are, inevitably, fundamentally different from those which operate in universities.
  4. Standards. Similarly, it is pretty much impossible at the moment to assure the academic standards of MOOCs. Whilst part of the idea is to encourage collaboration between students and despite the introduction in certain specific cases of supervised examinations, plagiarism is inevitable and there is simply no way to test whether any assessment is genuinely a student’s own work.

    iTunesU

  5. Online isn’t that new and shiny. Lots of universities are already delivering online provision. Just look at iTunesU – there are hundreds of institutions represented and thousands of educational courses and other offerings.
  6. It’s not a revolution. Despite what Moody’s may say, we’ve been here before. From correspondence courses to the launch of the Open University and from Mechanics’ Institutes to the University of London External Programme there really isn’t anything in this which has not been done before, albeit in slightly different ways.
  7. Wastage rates are enormous. 90% plus in many cases. That really isn’t a ringing endorsement. It’s low stakes for the participants. Many people are taking such courses just out of interest or to brush up their technical skills. While this remains the case then wastage will continue to be high and the hold of MOOCs will be tenuous.
  8. Content not education. MOOCs aren’t offering education but rather just content delivery. The classroom and campus experience and the face-to–face interaction with other learners and teachers is a key element of learning. People still matter. Especially in education.
  9. Tech. Computers still aren’t very good at marking essays. Most assessments are therefore more limited and plagiarism is easier.
  10. Inputs matter. Universities select their students for a good reason. They want them to be able to benefit from the course and have a reasonable chance of completing it. Complete open access means that high wastage rates are the norm and you can’t be confident that the ones who finish the course are any better for it or indeed if they did any of the work themselves.
  11. The Open University isn’t panicking. If any institution should be concerned it would be the OU as MOOCs would seem to strike at the heart of their business model. They aren’t. Indeed they seem to be doing better than ever.
  12. MOOCs are nothing without universities (where are all those trendy professors going to be educated otherwise?). And, despite what Sebastian Thrun, founder of Udacity, predicts there will be more than 10 universities in the world half a century from now.

So, don’t panic. Yet. Because before we get too dismissive of the hype surrounding the game-changing, paradigm-shifting, revolutionary nature of MOOCs there are several reasons to pause for thought:

  • Numbers. There really are very large numbers of people following MOOCs who traditional higher education is not reaching. Internationally and locally there are opportunities for universities to reach new audiences which they really should be considering.
  • Ethos. The aims of the MOOC consortia in terms of promoting accessibility, participation and democratization of learning are laudable and should not be dismissed lightly.
  • Avoiding complacency. The services we offer to students who do enrol, study and stay on our campuses can always be improved. Students do have a choice and we need to ensure they get maximum value from their university experience.
  • IT. Many universities struggle to harness technological developments to support student learning. We can still do a lot better.

There is no need to panic therefore. At least not just yet. But setting aside the hype there are lessons to be learned and universities will want to consider how to raise their game. Just to be on the safe side.

From National to Global Universities

A nice piece from David Wheeler in the Chronicle of Higher Education on some of the challenges for universities in going global:

Universities, like companies, may need to make the transformation from being a national brand to being a global one. Siemens, once thought of as a German company, now says that it is “a global powerhouse in electronics and electrical engineering, operating in the industry, energy, and health-care sectors.”

Global brands can be adapted to various local markets, while still staying globally integrated. I just gave away a collection of international Coke cans, consisting of many different shapes and bearing Arabic, Chinese, and Spanish words, among others. But they were all instantly identifiable as Coke cans.

As some universities seek to be global, they often emphasize that a degree in one country will be exactly identical to a degree in another. I’m left wondering if a little more flexibility might be in order.

Human-resources departments may need to rise in importance as universities seek to become more global. The complexities of managing different people in different places are high, and human-resources departments, which are often simply the servants of academic departments at many universities, need to acquire and share their expertise on how to manage a mix of expatriates and local workers in a variety of countries.

I think this flexibility point is well made. Institutions do have to adapt to the environment in which they are operating. Education cannot be entirely context independent. Academic standards do, of course, have to be consistent. So, whilst term dates may be different and the timetable may look a little unusual, the curriculum, learning outcomes, assessment and examinations, admission requirements and academic staff qualifications, to name but a few components, do have to be directly comparable to ensure that the standards of awards and the quality of the student learning experience are maintained. These are fundamental to sustaining the institutional brand.

An earlier post noted the continued growth in branch campus developments by universities. All of the issues faced by global corporations, from maintaining the brand to developing HR operations, are shared by universities looking to grow a presence overseas. But it is very difficult to do this alone:

Lastly, I think that universities can learn from corporations about how to better manage partnerships. It’s a bit of a cliché, but I would be remiss if I didn’t say it: Universities approaching partners need to think of programs that would benefit both parties. Approaching a computer company and asking for money or machines to take back to the university doesn’t work for the company, without some benefit being offered. Companies have their own problems to solve.

The issue of partnerships is crucial. Any institution looking to establish a genuine global presence is not going to be able to do it alone and will in all likelihood require government backing as well as other partners to help with infrastructure development and navigating through a different policy and legal environment. None of this is straightforward but can be done and does bring rewards. In the long run.

There is an interesting link here to the recent story about the UK Universities Minister’s discussions with Goldman Sachs about ways to support offshoring opportunities for British HEIs. Branch campuses are not the solution to domestic economic travails but they are a serious option for universities looking to establish a global brand. Although there are many challenges associated with such developments, the benefits are significant.

Killing the myths in higher education

Misunderstandings and myths

An interesting new pamphlet has just been published by HEPI. Misunderstanding Modern Higher Education: Eight “category mistakes” is a brief and snappy read and is available from the HEPI website:

In this HEPI occasional report, Professor Sir David Watson discusses eight myths – category mistakes – concerning higher education that are widely believed, and argues that these need to be exploded if higher education is to maintain its current comparatively healthy state. This report is based on his presentation to a joint HEPI/HEA seminar at the House of Commons on 26 January 2012.

It’s quite a challenging set of propositions. Here a category mistake is defined as a “sentence that says one thing in one category that can only intelligibly be said of something of another” eg “what does blue smell like?” Watson suggests there are at least eight category mistakes in higher education discourse at present. Some of these I’d agree with but other I think are less convincing.

1. “University” performance

Watson argues that it is the sector or the subject rather than the institution which is the more meaningful unit of analysis. This is certainly true in certain areas, eg NSS, as suggested here. BUT the institution is the key organisational unit, indeed the primary one. While it can reasonably be argued that the university is no more than the sum of its (academic) parts and the staff in those units identify with them more strongly than with the university itself, it is surely wrong to imagine that the subject/department can regarded as an entirely independent unit. There is a mutual dependency here.

3. HE “Sector”

We should be talking about tertiary, ie post-secondary, education rather than exclusively about higher ed. I’m not sure I agree nor does it seem to me that this is a category error. “Higher” education is a sub-category of tertiary education. It is funded differently and has a different set of traditions and regulatory frameworks to other tertiary provision. We might want to take a more rounded view of tertiary education and, indeed, it would be short-sighted not to. But do we gain much by preventing sub-divisions within the very wide range of activity that is tertiary education?

4. Research “selectivity”

Research concentration, which the system encourages, is running counter to the national need and the general trend towards inter-institutional collaboration. In the long run, concentration of research will be counter-productive and isolated work will wither. Two tiers won’t work therefore. But surely this is just an argument for a different kind of selectivity, one based on different criteria to those generated through RAE/REF? For example, signficant collaboration could be the primary criterion. With limited resources to go round though there is always going to be some selectivity.

Probably mythical


5. World-classness

Watson highlights the madness of the international league tables and notes that what everyone says they want is not reflected in what league tables measure. The international tables, which are the determinant of ‘world-classness’, are fundamentally related to research. Again therefore this is about the criteria selected.

7. Informed choice

The paper rightly notes that student choices over time have moulded our system. The idea that students need more information which will then persuade the market to do what government wants is, Watson argues, fundamentally misguided. Additional information is simply not going to get students to do government’s bidding.

8. Reputation and quality: the confusion between the two

Clearly there is some form of relationship between reputation and quality but Watson argues that the gap in reality is much smaller than it often appears. Good quality can clearly exist independently of reputation. Also Watson rightly notes the perception of student instumentalism and its dominance in the discourse.

(I’ve ignored number 2, Access, and number 6, The public/private divide, here.)

And finally…

Finally, Watson asks “What is to be done”?

Rather than Leninist solutions though he offers three particular suggestions. First, the system will need to be messier, more flexible and co-operative. Secondly, we should not chase the Harvard model but rather aim to develop a system more like the California Masterplan – this is really about the national direction of tertiary education. Thirdly, he argues that a proper credit accumulation and transfer framework is needed: “we fail to use these systems for reasons of conservatism, snobbery and lack of imagination”. (Actually, I’d suggest it is much more about a desire to protect institutional autonomy.)

Watson concludes by arguing that we should start by tackling these category mistakes and then learn to live with “flux and contingency”. I’m not sure we would want to spend a huge amount of time on the former or that we have any choice about the latter. It’s the nature of the world we operate in. Do read the piece though.

The Imperfect University: Reviewing Higher Education in Scotland

Report of the Review of Higher Education Governance in Scotland 

As we have seen in the previous post in this series on regulation, governments, although they will often talk the language of freedom and autonomy, cannot help but get themselves involved in the regulation of higher education. However, Scotland is different and higher education in Scotland is different. And it is unsurprising that the Scottish Government, with control over higher education policy, will wish to continue to follow an alternative path to England. But it looks like it may be unable to stop itself pursuing further regulation of universities. Hence the Report of the Review of Higher Education Governance in Scotland which has been produced by a Committee chaired by the Principal of Robert Gordon University (who has also blogged on this topic). It is a bold report which seems intended to reinforce the differences with England and to require greater accountability. But if you are looking at this from a university perspective, it seems to be a rather directive set of recommendations which, if enacted, would be a significant constraint on institutional autonomy. So we will have to wait and see if the Scottish Government can resist the invitation to get involved in more regulation of universities.

It is not entirely clear what problems these recommendations are intended to solve or how they will advance excellence in teaching and research at Scotland’s HE institutions. Moreover, the evidence base considered (as listed in the Bibliography) seems rather narrow: whilst the articles in the London Review of Books by Hotson and Collini represent interesting contributions to the higher education debate on changes in England, it is perhaps surprising that they are referenced as source material here. The other point of note is that the Committee was a small one with what appears to be very limited input from the universities.

Some of the recommendations are fairly innocuous but some of them seem quite remarkable and far reaching even in the Scottish context where there is much less conceptual and regulatory distance between government and universities. The full list of the recommendations can be found in the Report of the Review of Higher Education Governance in Scotland.

The cornerstone of the proposed reform is a new all-embracing statute:

The panel therefore recommends that the Scottish Parliament enact a statute for Scotland’s higher education sector setting out the key principles of governance and management and serving as the legal basis for the continued establishment of all recognised higher education institutions.

The new statute should be drafted as a measure that will rationalise and simplify the regulatory framework of higher education governance; it might provide for:

  • the conditions applying to the establishment of new universities;
  • the key structures of university governance and management;
  • the role and composition of governing bodies and academic boards;
  • the role and appointment of university principals;
  • the drawing up of a code of good governance for Scottish higher education;
  • the status of student associations;
  • the principles of academic freedom and institutional autonomy.

However, the statute should continue to embrace diversity of mission and of operation, and should reinforce the principles of university autonomy and of academic freedom

The details of each of these are set out in the recommendations but this is a really striking proposition – essentially it is an attempt to impose some order and coherence on Scottish HEIs but for what purpose is far from clear other than wanting things to be a bit neater and to regulate new entrants. Moreover, by setting out statutory requirements in each of these areas this would seem fundamentally to challenge the espoused principle of university autonomy and also constrain diversity of institutional mission.

Let’s look at the specifics of some of these recommendations:

2.4 Academic Freedom and Institutional Autonomy

A definition of academic freedom should be incorporated in the statute governing higher education, based on the definition contained in Ireland’s Universities Act 1997, and applying to all ‘relevant persons’ as under the existing 2005 Act.

Scottish universities and higher education institutions should adopt a similar approach and that each institution should adopt through appropriate internal processes, and present to the SFC, a statement on its implementation of the statutory protection of academic freedom.

Is there a problem with academic freedom in Scotland? It really isn’t clear why, given the statutory protections which already exist, you would want to extend this much further unless it is to include it as a requirement for all academic staff, whether or not they are in universities (although how they would be defined if not is unclear), and to ensure that any new universities were mandated to build in such guarantees. But to impose such requirements on universities, regardless of how well-intentioned, does represent a challenge to their autonomy notwithstanding the fact that the funding council already has a responsibility to have regard to academic freedom.

2.5 The Role of Governance

Governing bodies should be required to demonstrate that their deliberations and decisions appropriately observe the four objectives the panel has set out for university governance, and they should regularly review their own performance against these.

The fundamental principle of a collaborative approach wherever appropriate should be enshrined in the Scottish university system through making the fostering of collaboration between universities a task for the Scottish Funding Council.


Three of the four objectives set out here seem entirely reasonable being concerned with stewardship for the long term, ensuring mission delivery and making proper use of public funds but the fourth – “ensuring stakeholder participation and accounting to the wider society for institutional performance” – seems, although worthy, somewhat at odds with institutional autonomy. Similarly, enshrining collaboration through funding arrangements may limit universities’ freedom to act independently and, although it will often be entirely reasonable for them to collaborate, surely this should be through choice or incentivisation rather than compulsion.

2.9 The Relationship with Further Education

All Scottish universities should not only include responsibilities to their region, alongside their national and international objectives, in their mission statements, but also seek ways to engage proactively, for the benefit of students and the Scottish education system as a whole, with further education institutions and any new governance structures that may be put in place.

Of course all universities will wish to address their regional responsibilities but to regulate this and insist on some form of activity with FE seems, once again, somewhat challenging to institutional freedom to pursue their agreed mission.

3.1 Appointment and Role of Principals

The heads of Scottish higher education institutions should be described as the ‘chief officer’, and that the job title should continue to be ‘Principal’.

There should be widened participation in the process for appointing Principals, and core to this approach should be the reform of the way in which of appointment panels are set up and operate.

The appraisal of Principals should involve external governing body members, staff and students.

3.2 Remuneration of Principals and Senior Management

Further percentage increases beyond those awarded to staff in general should not take place until existing processes have been reviewed and, if appropriate, amended.

Universities should ensure that any payments that may be perceived as bonuses are either abolished or at least transparently awarded and brought into line with the scale of ‘contribution payments’ available to on-scale staff.

Remuneration committees should include staff and student members. The work of the committee should be transparent, and in particular, the basis upon which pay is calculated should be published. While the Framework Agreement, determining pay scales for university staff up to the grade of professor, is a UK matter, the Scottish Government should investigate whether it might be extended north of the border to include all staff including Principals. There should be a standard format for reporting senior officer pay, and the SFC should publish these figures annually.

The SFC should investigate how the principles of the Hutton Report are being or should be applied to universities in Scotland.

Whilst it is not, arguably, terribly important what the Principal is described as it is not at all clear why the Irish approach has been proposed here nor why it is any of the government’s business what universities call their chief executives. More importantly though why should the appointment of Principals and their appraisal and remuneration be the subject of additional legislation? And doesn’t this again reduce institutional autonomy given the safeguards already in place in university charters, statutes and other statutory instruments?

Presumably this is all a response to a perception that Principals are overpaid and the wider societal concern about senior staff pay and bonuses. And there is a view here that all of this is necessary to secure staff engagement and to deliver institutional success. But once again should it not be a matter for the university and its governing body to determine?

4. Role, Composition and Appointment of Governing Bodies

Meetings of governing bodies should normally be held in public unless the matters under consideration are deemed to be of a confidential or commercially sensitive nature; these exceptional matters should be established through clear guidelines.

4.1 Chairing of Governing Bodies

The chair of the governing body should be elected, thus reflecting the democratic ideal of Scottish higher education (recommended by a majority, one member dissenting).

The chair should receive some form of reasonable remuneration (recommended by a majority, one member dissenting).

Again, the issue of autonomy and the constraint on the ability of the governing body to determine its own operation. The proposals around the election of the chair of the governing body are among the most surprising in the report (which is not short of surprises). The argument is that “the democratic ideal” of Scottish HE, which seems to be exemplified by the election of Rectors at the ancient universities, is to take precedence in the arrangements for appointing a chair of governors. Whilst some institutions may welcome this, it is questionable whether this is really the best way to deliver the leadership of the governing body which universities require. And the transaction costs and uncertainties would be significant. Remuneration decisions should, again, be matters for institutions themselves.

4.2 Membership of Governing Bodies

Positions on governing bodies for lay or external members should be advertised externally and all appointments should be handled by the nominations committee of the governing body. Each governing body should be so constituted that the lay or external members have a majority of the total membership.

There should be a minimum of two students on the governing body, nominated by the students’ association/union, one of whom should be the President of the Students’ Association and at least one of whom should be a woman. There should be at least two directly elected staff members. In addition, there should be one member nominated by academic and related unions and one by administrative, technical or support staff unions. The existing system of academic board representatives (called ‘Senate assessors’ in some universities) should also be continued. Governing bodies should also have up to two alumni representatives.

The existing practice in some universities of having ‘Chancellor’s assessors’ should be discontinued.

Each governing body should be required to ensure (over a specified transition period) that at least 40 per cent of the membership is female. Each governing body should also ensure that the membership reflects the principles of equality and diversity more generally, reflecting the diversity of the wider society.

Governing bodies should be required to draw up and make public a skills and values matrix for the membership of the governing body, which would inform the recruitment of independent members of the governing body. The membership of the governing body should be regularly evaluated against this matrix.

Expenses available to those who sit on the governing body should include any wages lost as a result of attending meetings.

Senior managers other than the Principal should not be governing body members and should not be in attendance at governing body meetings, except for specific agenda items at which their individual participation is considered necessary, and for those agenda items only.

4.4 Training

All universities should be required to ensure that governors – including external governors, staff governors and student governors – are fully briefed and trained, and their knowledge should be refreshed regularly in appropriate programmes. Each governing body should be required to report annually on the details of training made available to and availed of by governors.

5.1 Composition of the Academic Board and Appointment of Members

In line with existing legislation applying to the ancient universities, the academic board should be the final arbiter on academic matters.

Apart from the Principal and the heads of School (or equivalent) who should attend ex officio, all other members should be elected by the constituency that they represent, and elected members should form a majority of the total membership. In establishing the membership of the academic board, due regard should be given to the principles of equality, and the need for the body to be representative. This includes a requirement to ensure that there is significant (rather than token) student representation. Overall, academic boards should not normally have more than 120 members.

All terribly prescriptive. Whilst it is hard to argue with any individual item, these really should all be matters for institutions themselves to determine.

(And 120 members is probably not the ideal number for effective decision making at Academic Board level.)

7.3 Avoiding Bureaucratisation

The Scottish Funding Council should undertake a review of the bureaucratic and administrative demands currently made of higher education institutions from all government and public agency sources, with a view to rationalising these and thereby promoting more transparent and efficient regulation and governance.

7.4 Code of Good Governance

The Scottish Funding Council should commission the drafting of a Code of Good Governance for higher education institutions.

Given the prescriptive and far-reaching nature of most of the recommendations, a Code of Good Governance would seem to be an unwelcome addition – and it will look a bit more like a rule book than a guide. However, step one in the review of bureaucratic and administrative demands recommended here would usefully be to consider most of the proposals preceding this one in the document!

So, a pretty extraordinary document. The responses from the Scottish universities so far seems to have been rather muted. The Times has recently reported on some more vocal opposition and concern about “meddling” in university affairs:

Last night, Liz Smith, the Scottish Conservative education spokeswoman said it appeared there was “widespread and growing” concern about key proposals in the Von Prondzynski review.

She said: “There are two main fears, firstly, that universities are being pushed into radical reform when there is no evidence to suggest that there is a serious problem with the existing structures of university governance and, secondly, that some of the proposed reforms are more about the Scottish government’s desire to diminish the autonomy of universities in favour of increasing the power of ministers.

“On both counts, I think the universities are absolutely right to be concerned.”

Kim Catcheside has published a column on the report in the Guardian Professional, in which she notes that:

Behind the scenes, universities may be concerned about the possibility of political interference but are cautious about speaking out. Mary Senior from the University and College Union told The Scotsman: “It is fair the Scottish government expects certain standards to follow this generous settlement, but it must be very careful not to be overly prescriptive or directive about the learning, research and teaching that goes on in universities.”

Quite an indication there in the comments from UCU of how far reaching these proposals are. Will this report enhance the quality of Scottish higher education? We will see. It will certainly exacerbate the already marked differences between English and Scottish university operations, funding and governance. It is undoubtedly a stimulating document and reflective of many of the challenges facing universities but it is difficult to disagree with the concluding comment made by Liz Smith in the Times piece above:

“The Scottish government is going down a dangerous road of reform which is both interventionist and bureaucratic and which threatens the independence of our most successful academic institutions.”

Evaluating University Internationalisation

On the benefits of evaluating international activity

http://www.aca-secretariat.be/fileadmin/templates/2009/images/logosmall.jpg

A nice short article by Eva Egron-Polak, Secretary General of the International Association of Universities (IAU) published by the Academic Coordination Association.

Egron-Polak argues that there is a beneficial emphasis on evaluating internationalisation at present and that this trend means that international activity is being taken seriously and that all kinds of such activity is being fully and properly scrutinised. Moreover, it means that universities are continuing, quite properly, to debate their approach to internationalisation, in other words to ask ‘why are we doing this?’.

Although she acknowledges that terminology is difficult here and internationalisation has as many different definitions as there are institutions, Egron-Polak argues that there is real value in the kind of assessment undertaken by the IAU through its Internationalization Strategies Advisory Service (ISAS) where “the aim is to know whether or not the internationalisation goals are being achieved; and if we fall short of that, why this is the case, and what is required to redress the situation”.

The overall outcomes of the ISAS programme are quite interesting:

And, despite the vastly dissimilar contextual realities in each university, each ISAS project still confirmed that the dominant understanding of internationalisation of higher education remains relatively narrow or only partial. Consequently, internationalisation tends to be implemented in a limited manner. And when institutions embark on an assessment, they are likely to focus on just a few, basic aspects, using a limited set of (usually quantitative) indicators, such as the number of international students on campus, the number of exchange partnerships, the teaching of foreign languages and the hosting of visitors from abroad.  Despite the clear importance of these indicators of internationalisation, are they really a mark that the goals of internationalisation have been achieved?  How much do they tell us about the impact of these actions on the learning that takes place?  How well can the academic community reply to the ‘why’ questions that can be raised about these actions, particularly when they require institutional investment?

So actually it looks like many institutions really have quite a long way to go to develop a more comprehensive conceptualisation of internationalisation. This seems to me to be rather disappointing but perhaps not entirely surprising. It does take time to develop beyond the basic issues of student numbers and exchange agreements and it is perhaps therefore inevitable that some universities will be further down the road than others. In all cases though, stepping back and asking the ‘why’ questions in relation to different international activities does seem sensible.

The Imperfect University: who should lead universities?

Academics make the best university leaders

Or do they? For the first piece in this series I thought it would be appropriate to revisit and develop a post from early in 2011 on leadership in universities. The focus here is very much on the who rather than the how of university leadership – that’s a much bigger topic we’ll come back to in due course.

Amanda Goodall, who has done a lot of work on this, recently published a brief piece on why academics make the best university leaders. It’s a powerful argument and it is difficult to disagree with Goodall’s thesis – top universities do need top academics to lead them. Goodall’s recent book, Socrates in the Boardroom, makes this quite compelling case in more detail.

And yet. There is a suggestion here that it is sufficient simply to appoint a top academic. That, somehow, everything will come good if only the university can find the right leader, someone with the strongest academic credentials, with the most citations:

Why should scholars lead universities? In short, it is because the knowledge acquired through having been a career academic, provides the necessary wisdom to make the right decisions when that person becomes a leader.

The core business of universities is research and teaching. My research suggests that in specialist organisations, such as universities, experts not managers make the best leaders and that the performance of universities improves if they are led by presidents, vice-chancellors or rectors who are outstanding scholars.

Take Queen Mary, University of London. It went from 48th position in the Times Higher Education RAE ranking in 2001 to 13th in 2008. Who led Queen Mary? Adrian Smith, one of the most distinguished academic leaders in post at the time.

My research shows that the higher up a university is ranked globally, the more likely it is that the citations of its president will also be high. In other words, better universities appoint better researchers to lead them. Interestingly, US universities select more distinguished academics as leaders compared with universities in Europe and the rest of the world.

It is not only current performance that is affected. The research shows that the higher a president’s lifetime citations, the more likely it is that the university will improve its performance in future research assessment exercises. Why?

Leaders who are scholars have a deep understanding of the core business and, therefore, are more likely to create the right conditions under which other scholars will thrive. Similarly, professional managers will create the necessary conditions for other managers. These are not interchangeable situations.

The outstanding scholar leader is therefore arguably necessary to create the conditions for success but might not be sufficient. Goodall also argues that:

An administration beset with burdensome managerial processes will likely have a negative impact on the productivity of researchers

Again, agreed, but if a university simply disregards the importance of developing a first class administration to support first class teaching and world-leading research then it will end up with disorganised, chaotic and expensive processes which hinder rather than help – it is this scenario which has the most negative impact on the productivity of researchers. It’s like building an excellent football team but paying no attention to the pitch, stadium or finances. You might perform well for a time but not sustainably. And sooner or later those star players will get fed up with washing their own kit, selling programmes and clearing up the stands after the game.

There is also the suggestion here that if only the “power” of the manager could be reduced then academics would be free to deliver on the core business:

The increase in managerial processes is correlated with a rise in the number of university managers: between the years 2003-04 and 2008-09, the number of managers employed in British universities increased from 10,740 to 14,250 (up 33%). During the same period, academic staff rose in numbers from 106, 900 to 116,495 (up 10%) and students rose from 220, 0180 to 239,605 (up 9%), according to the Higher Education Statistics Agency.

It is somewhat surprising, therefore, that specialists in universities – academics – should be expected to concede power to generalists, or managers.

The category of managers identified here makes up only around 7-8% of all non-academic staff in universities and the HESA data doesn’t reflect differences in the way institutions record different kinds of professional staff. For example, some universities will now describe the most junior non-academic staff, who might previously have been categorised as secretaries, as managers, simply because of general moves away from more traditional nomenclature.

However, the key question here is what are these managers doing? In the best institutions, their primary concern is to support and encourage the best academics to do what they do best, to minimise the distractions and to reduce the unwelcome and bureaucratic incursions of the state into academic life.

Top leaders need top lieutenants too. Leaders need to be free to lead and therefore need to focus on the core business as Goodall says. To enable this to happen, the management needs to be strong, supportive and effective. Not dominant but a key element of the infrastructure for success.

Two other views on administrators and academics as university leaders

Geoffrey Williams has argued that administrators cannot deliver enlightened management in universities. According to Williams only academics can do so:

Administration, like death and taxes, has always been here. Universities need enlightened management; the reality is that only faculty can provide this. Universities also require and employ professional managers. The situation is similar to that in hospitals, another world that requires great dedication from its staff. As everyone knows, if you leave a hospital solely in the hands of professional administrators, the patient is forgotten. Likewise, if you leave a university solely in the hands of a professional manager, there is a risk that both students and research will no longer be to the fore.

David Allen offers a rather different perspective:

Only about one in three employees of universities are academics, but given the academic purpose of universities they tend to have the biggest input in shaping the job and person description, at least in general terms, for VC and other leadership appointments. I take it as a given that senior managers in universities, even if they are not academics, must be able to empathise with academic values and to create strong, positive relations with academic colleagues. Universities are not and should not be command and control organisations. Managers need to proceed by persuasion and the force of the evidenced better argument. Creativity, tension, individuality and resistance to change are often embedded in the academic DNA. Academics have many and varied strategies to bypass managerial processes and edicts which they perceive to inhibit their activities and it is clearly more difficult for a manager who lacks academic credibility to achieve acceptance. A VC/DVC/PVC with an academic pedigree starts higher up the grid and has more of a reservoir of goodwill when difficult choices have to be made. This needs to be balanced with the changing requirements for Vice-Chancellors to be credible with business, not least in relation to fundraising. Academic credibility needs perhaps to be balanced more with other requirements for senior management success rather than as a sine qua non and a barrier to entry to the competition for otherwise well qualified candidates. This would increase the talent pool available for consideration from both within and outwith the sector.

Allen argues sensibly for an open minded approach to recruiting university leaders rather than Williams’ (and Goodall’s) more exclusive approach. All of this suggests it is perhaps unhelpful to focus solely on this issue of who is better equipped to lead and look at the broader picture of how the conditions for institutional success are created, developed and sustained. And there are examples of a number of institutions, admittedly a handful, where vice-chancellors have been appointed from non-academic backgrounds.

Not a solo effort

So, whilst I might remain mildly annoyed at the suggestion that someone like me could only ever offer benighted misdirection to a university, what really irks about all of this is the idea of mutual exclusivity: whatever the background of the leader, s/he will not be acting alone and will have a team of colleagues working with her/him to deliver success. Universities may well often best be led by leading academics but no one individual, whatever their background, is going to be able to do everything on their own. Universities are just too big, complex and diverse.

Quality of Swedish universities ‘too low’

Sweden’s Education Minister has some harsh words for the country’s universities

Echoing the views of the Ugandan President on his country’s higher education system, Sweden’s Education Minister, Jan Björklund, has been speaking out:

“The quality of the knowledge that Swedish students have when they leave university is not enough to prepare them for adult life,” Björklund told Sverige Radio (SR), adding that too often, the quality of Swedish universities is often “too low”.

“We need a much tougher and more stringent government inspection of Sweden’s higher education.”

The piece in The Local goes on to suggest that the government intends to restructure the regulatory machinery in Sweden “to get rid of all courses that are not up to scratch”

Are Sweden's universities flagging?

The plan involves merging three agencies into two:

The three current authorities are the Swedish National Agency for Higher Education (Högskoleverket), the Swedish Agency for Higher Education Services (Verket för högskoleservice – VHS) and the International Programme Office for Education and Training (Internationella programkontoret för utbildningsområdet – IPK). Following the reshuffle, the responsibilities of the three will be divided over two agencies, with the one being the only agency responsible for quality control of the higher education system.

The Minister’s view is that the current Swedish National Agency for Higher Education, is “plagued by being required to both give development advice and review courses at the same time.” There is an argument for separating inspection from improvement in quality assurance but I’m not sure it will really make the kind of difference hoped for here. The benefit of development advice is unlikely to be greatly enhanced or make a real impact because of these changes. And it could be argued that Sweden already has some rather good universities with at least two universities normally in the QS Top 100; what might help is perhaps reducing the government interference in their academic activities.

Firsts and fees, plagiarism and pay hikes (and the rest)

No dumbing down here – is this the most comprehensive HE piece ever?

Daily Mail online has a terrific piece which manages to conflate a host of different higher education issues within a single kick ass column. On the back of recent HESA data which shows an increase in the number of students achieving first and upper second class degrees the article moves on to plagiarism, league table corruption, commercialisation (not clear if good or bad), the optionality of HEAR (bad?), an ‘expert’ view of classifications, coercion of external examiners, VC pay increases and fee rises in the context of declining HE funding. Unbelievable? Perhaps it would be fairer to let the piece speak for itself:

The number of students awarded first-class degrees has more than doubled over the last decade.

A record one in six graduates obtained the top qualification last year, prompting fresh concerns about grade inflation and the value of degrees.

One expert says that degree classifications are now ‘almost meaningless’.

The trend has fuelled demands for a major overhaul of the system, with the introduction of a ‘starred first’ degree for the brightest graduates.

According to figures released yesterday by the Higher Education Statistics Agency (HESA), 53,215 graduates gained firsts in 2010/11 compared with 23,700 in 2000/01.

A decade ago, nine per cent of graduates gained the top classification. By 2010/11 the proportion getting firsts had risen to 15.5 per cent.

HESA also provided detailed data covering the period between 2006/7 and 2010/11, when there was a 45 per cent increase in the number of students gaining firsts.

A feast of higher education comments

Sixty-six per cent of degrees obtained by women were firsts or 2.1s in 2010/11 compared with 61 per cent of those achieved  by males.

High scores: More students are graduating and with better grades than in the past, despite accusations of commercialism and anti-intellectualism

Demands for reform of degree classification have increased over recent years amid claims that some lecturers turn a blind eye to plagiarism to help their institutions climb official league tables.

University whistle-blowers have also alleged that external examiners have been ‘leaned on’ to boost grades.

Universities have been asked to adopt a new graduate ‘report card’, providing a detailed breakdown of students’ academic achievements plus information about extra-curricular activities. However, they cannot be forced to.

Professor Alan Smithers, of Buckingham University, said: ‘The inflation in degree classes is rendering them almost meaningless.

‘Employers have to look at A-level results and the university at which the degree is being obtained.’

The heads of elite universities are raking in average pay packages of almost £318,000 ahead of the tripling of tuition fees.

Many vice chancellors are enjoying salary rises when higher education has seen its funding slashed and students are being forced to pay up to £9,000 a year in fees.

A veritable smorgasbord of entertaining higher education observations. All in one short piece. Truly the Mail is spoiling us. We may never see the like again.